About lagusta

rabble-rouser antipreneur on a mission against milquetoast.

shop anniversary party THIS FRIDAY!

IMGP4836

Hello sweet teeth,

Well first of all. People keep asking us if we’re going to have the Savory Dinner Series this year. I’m so pleased that so many people liked the weird little meals I dreamed up. Unfortunately, much to my sadness, we bought some new equipment this year that takes up most of the space we need for the dinners, so we’re skipping the series this year, though we might try to squeeze in one dinner or so later in the summer.

Speaking of indulgences: this Friday, June 27, is our 3-year shop anniversary celebration, and I so hope you’ll come. 8 PM, at the shop, dress up if you’d like. There will be lots of nice drinks, chocolates, cake made by Maresa, and maybe even a savory nibble or two. It’s our annual thank-you to our amazing customers and nurturing community—that means you!

See you Friday!

 

Saying no (when you’ve decided to say yes.).

IMGP3240

It’s a slow time of year.

The shop is slow because the weather has been unbearable, and mail order is slow because there’s no chocolate-holiday happening right now.

It’s been wonderful.

Without the pressure of a looming holiday I have time to work on long-term projects, train new employees more thoroughly, have days off, make food that takes more than five minutes to prepare. Heaven.

Easter is gently winking at us, still a bit down the line, with the promise of busy hands making endless bunnies and peanut butter eggs and cream eggs and all that, which means bills being paid without even looking at the available balance and setting aside a little extra to pay off debt and maybe a nice treat night out in NYC, too. It’s a balanced life, in its unbalanced way, this one. Weeks of nonstop work followed by breathing. I’ve come to crave each cycle: the crush and the release.

We’re just going for it these days, saying yes to most things.

I used to think a lot about saying no.

I created this job to have a nice life, not to make a ton of money. I’m sure the former would lead somewhat to the latter, in some ways, but I don’t trust myself to find out. Better not to tempt it. I have a nice life now.

I can pay my student loans, my car’s paid off, my cats have food, so do Jacob & I, our mortgages for the house & the building the shop’s in will get paid down in time. Got a little credit card debt & some loans from some business expansion, but I’m paying it off fast.

If iI were the only person working at the shop, I’d keep things just where they’re at with the business forever. The capitalist decree to endlessly expand is sickening to me, seeing as It’s precisely what’s got our planet and so many of its inhabitants into such a pickle right now: ecosystem counting down the seconds until collapse, so many of us trapped by debt or obligation into unfulfilling jobs, leaning on developing nations to provide us with cheap commodities and services with built-in hidden costs that would break your heart fifty times over if we could see the realities of their production.

Endgame capitalism, nihilism writ large: not my thing.

IMGP3316

Because I started the business in order to live a good life, a life in line with these beliefs, it’s been tricky, at times, to decide when to say no to things. Making money is a game, and I can’t deny I like playing it. It’s about being smart: minimizing risk, working efficiently. Efficiency gives me deep pleasure. Finding ways to coax a profit out of a raw material that costs more than gold and takes endless hours of labor to create is a riddle I always enjoy solving. It’s hard not to jump at every opportunity we can to do so.

But, so far at least (who knows, maybe we’ll massively and spectacularly sell out tomorrow) my little anarchist ecofeminist ethics keep me in check most of the time. I’m thankful I have this little set of beliefs to fall back on, because otherwise we could have gone down all kinds of weird roads, and right now I like the road we’re on a lot.

But! Ah, there’s a but. But it’s slow. It’s March, it’s the month after our busiest month of the year, of course it’s slow. I’m fine with it, but what about the other eight people who work at Lagusta’s Luscious? They don’t have the insulating layer of February-cash to fall back on during these quiet periods. We expanded their hours a bit during Valentine’s, but not a ton, and when you’re in your twenties, as most of them are, you always always always need cash. Student loans are a killer, rents in New Paltz are ridiculous, always something. Pretty much everyone at the shop would be happy with more hours right now.

marsh (1 of 1)

And in the middle of all this, I went and hired two more people.

There were rumblings, yup.

They were right to rumble. It seemed unfair, because it was.

I tried to explain it: we can’t do what we did last December, which was to literally beg any friends walking by the shop to wash dishes or wrap boxes for us. Holidays will keep getting bigger whether or not we want them to (with luck), and we have to be more prepared. Pre-Valentine’s we were in this spot where literally no one could take a day off because no one could cover for them because everyone was already working every day. It was insane. So in order to be more prepared for the wild times that take over three times a year (December holidays, Valentine’s, Easter), we need to train new people now. What that means is more people working less hours—for now. And in the future: more people working more hours.

It sucks for them right now. But I don’t want to hire seasonal workers and then lay people off, that seems patently stupid for a business that needs such highly trained employees. We started the exhausting process of finding someone, and a weird thing happened: we interviewed some great candidates, and couldn’t decide between two people. So we hired both of them. And in the end everyone’s been super warm and welcoming to them and understanding of what I needed to do, which warms my heart and makes me love my team even more.

I feel so loyal to them, my little crew. I’m a loner. Solitude’s my thing. To have found people with which you can do meaningful work feels like winning some weird lottery you never wanted to enter. Strange, and really really nice.

_IGP6332

As I said, if it were up to me, I’d stop this ride. I’d keep doing what we’re doing, but no more. I’d say no to the huge wholesale orders that come in around the holidays when we’re already so pinched. I’d decline orders even from the celebrities! I’d go home at 7 when we close the shop every night and put up my feet and pet my cats and…well, it’s such a foreign concept to me I don’t even know what I’d do with my feet up. I’d regret it, probably, regret not playing the game a little more, seeing what I could do if I pushed myself more.

So, I’m thankful that I decided not to say no. Last fall we made a decision to expand the business a bit, and it feels good to have made the choice. One big reason I wanted to go for it, to take opportunities we’ve always seen on the horizon, was because of the people working at the shop.

We pay everyone hourly, and it just seems stupid. We’re selling a luxury product, and we talk such a big talk about paying the farmers who grow our cacao and whatnot a fair wage, and I’d like to be paying salaries to the women (and sweet Brendan!) who actually make our confections. We pay much better than most food businesses, particularly in this town, but why can’t we afford to have salaried workers, who have paid vacations and health care?

IMGP0126

And this is how the goalposts shift on you: you just want a business that fulfills you, and you work ten years to get it. Then you want a business that’s sustainable for the people who work with you, too. And that will be the focus of our next five or ten years: expanding the business enough to allow for salaried employees.

With this in mind, I’m in the mode of saying yes to things. It’s not hard: it’s nice to say yes. I like the big jobs, even when they’re tiring.

With all this swirling around me, I opened my email this afternoon to this:

Hi! I hope this email finds you well. I work for Free People, a women’s retailer based in Philadelphia and part of Urbn Inc. We had a lot of success selling vegan sweets on our website over the past Valentine’s day and Christmas holidays and I was looking for a way to develop a small concept for our website & a few stores for Easter. I love your chocolate bunny and would be super interested in buying them wholesale and/or private label. Hope to discuss this opportunity with you! Thanks so much, xxxx

And I just can’t say yes to this.

Free People is owned by Urban Outfitters, which is a store I don’t shop at for about a million reasons (#1 being that I am slowly converting my wardrobe to consisting solely of vintage 1940s denim coveralls, but still.).

The argument could be made that one should sell one’s ethically-produced goods in unsavory stores because people in those stores will then at least purchase one thing made in a responsible manner. This argument smacks of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which is to say: it gives me a stomachache to think about our lil floppy-eared bun-buns sitting next to, say Navajo Hipster Panties. Which is to say: a new world isn’t built of bricks made in sweatshops bought at the mall.

On the other hand: on their website and in some stores? That’s some money right there, son. Money is nice! Money advances goals! Vintage coveralls are not cheap, people!

IMGP3313

But still.

No way.

So I wrote this:

Dear xxx,

Thank you so much for thinking of our products. I’m honored, but we can’t bear to work with a company owned by Urban Outfitters.

All of our chocolates are organic, fair-trade, and handmade, and we pride ourselves on our high ethical standards. I don’t personally shop at any stores owned by Urban Outfitters (though I have a great Free People dress I got at a thrift store I adore, sigh), so it wouldn’t feel right to have my chocolates sold there.

I’d love more information about the conditions under which the workers making your clothes work, because the consensus on the internet seems to be that they’re pretty much your typical sweatshop-made clothes.

Even more saddening is that so many of the clothes sold at Urban Outfitters further a troubling and problematic vision: from seeming to advance eating disorders and insensitive stereotypes to cultural appropriation (“Hipster Navajo Panties” etc.) to making clothing that only fits one type of body, it’s not a chain we want to align ourselves with.

Not to mention that over and over you have been shown to copy designs from smaller independent artisans, and that your founder has  given large donations to right-wing politicians like Rick Santorum, whose politics we’re not fans of.

I’d love to work with you on a bunny project, but sadly I just don’t think I could sleep at night.

All the best,

Lagusta

Saying yes—except when we need to say no. That’s where we’re at today.

IMGP3242

 

breakfast soup: a way of life.

photo 4

When Jacob and I were on vacation in Hawaii in January, we got a big bag of organic quinoa and made some for breakfast every morning. Coconut milk, maple syrup, some local fruit, some nuts, and hot quinoa. It was great, and I felt great. But I knew I wouldn’t be up for quinoa breakfasts when we got back home, because when I’m in work mode (11 months out of the year), I wake up and want to get to work and start working, not making food since making food (well, candy) is my job all day long.

Also I got really tired of quinoa.

In an attempt to get me to continue the quinoa thing, or some kind of breakfast thing, since its effects (calm clearheadedness, minimal food-rage outbursts) were obvious, Jacob turned to me one day and said dramatically, “I would like to invite you to join me in a club. A secret club.

.

.

.

A breakfast club.”

And how do you say no to that?

So I’m trying.

photo 1

We talk a lot at work about Ways To Not Become Crazed With Hunger, for two reasons.

First, most of us at the shop are women and women are taught by a patriarchal society that martyrdom is an exalted and appropriate lifestyle choice and therefore putting aside one’s own desires (i.e. eating when hungry) in favor of serving a wider society (i.e. getting more done) is OK. Second, because the nature of working at the shop is to just bump along from one thing to another thing then to get interrupted from those things by another thing, so that soon five hours passes and you’re not only working on five things at once but also you suddenly and with a huge flash of rage-hunger realize you passed a few hours ago the calm and sane equilibrium that rational and regular meal consumption provides.

We are all working hard to not do this. 

Kate is our breakfast inspiration, really. Last fall, Kate, who is better at eating meals than anyone I know, gave us a Snack Seminar which attempted to get us to eat more regularly. Her other big campaign is for everyone at the shop to eat breakfast. She’s probably the only one who eats a true breakfast every morning: a serious meal, complete with pour over coffee and multiple home-cooked components (tacos! avocados! sautéed greens! pancakes! wraps! sometimes all on the same plate!). The rest of us traditionally either grab whatever’s hanging around, or eat nothing at all. I wake up with lots of morning energy that I’m desperate to harness, so I get to work as quick as possible in order to have a little quiet time before the rest of the crew arrives. This habit is not conducive to a morning meal, and I usually feel the effects around 1 PM, when I suddenly want to kill everyone in the immediate vicinity and desperately eat a Turtle because I tell myself that at least it contains protein (five pecans!).

Most of us at the shop are giving a really good go of The Breakfast Club 2014. Maresa’s doing something involving soy yogurt and a special kind of muesli, Jacob transitioned straight from quinoa into oatmeal then grits then steel-cut oatmeal then back to quinoa again, Erin has minions of girls willing to bring her a bagel with tofu cream cheese with a quick dispatch of the shortest of texts. We’re trying. Brendan is still living on cigarettes, Marena on ketchup packets from The Bistro, but we’ll all get there, eventually.

My thing is Breakfast Soup. I’ve been doing it around a month now, and maybe it’s too early to say it’s utterly and completely transformed my life, but I’m going to say it anyway.

I love it so much that I’ll even eat it on Saturday mornings right next to freshly fried delicious doughnuts and not even bat an eye. (Then I’ll eat two doughnuts for lunch—I’ll tackle eating a balanced lunch maybe in 2015 or something.)

photo

Breakfast Soup fits me like a fair isle sweater with a floral Lanz dress, mismatched leggings and hair that’s wild from being contained into Heidi braids all day: it’s weird, and I freaking love it.

IMG_4410

I love it much that I want everyone to be eating it. So here goes, my attempt to indoctrinate you into the cult of breakfast and specifically into the ways of Breakfast Soup.

Salient points first, then a loose recipe:

  • Breakfast Soup is an almost-instant meal. I make mine once a week or so, and once it’s made it’s ready in the time it takes to boil water for tea (if you have a wild fancy induction stove like we do at the shop, this is 1 minute and 30 seconds). The making of the soup itself is quick too. In truth I’m sort of always making soup, and because of that it takes almost no time at all. I just sort of set aside scraps for it from meals throughout the week, and it makes itself. More about this below.
  • I prefer not to do this, because I love BS so much I never want to get tired of it, but on ultra-rushed days BS can easily become LS: Lunch Soup. Add some noodles, fry up some vegetables and toss it in, and you have more of a hearty meal.
  • Breakfast Soup is a perfect and elegant way to efficiently use leftover scraps of food,  which makes it mighty cheap.
  • Breakfast Soup is protein-heavy and sugar-free, which are important components of a meal if, say, the rest your day involves mandatory sugar consumption. Though I joke about eating two doughnuts, in reality I heavily monitor my sugar intake, and don’t want to waste it on a gross sweet breakfast when I have to make RSSCs or something later in the day and need to taste appropriately.
  • I want to describe to you how good Breakfast Soup makes you feel. You feel good on two levels: you’ve eaten a healthier breakfast than anyone you know and therefore have bragging rights all day (and I know not what makes one feel better than bragging rights) but you also literally feel amazing because you’ve eaten the healthiest breakfast of all time. It truly is a magical meal.
  • Everything good in life should include miso, and BS does too. If it wasn’t already midnight and I had more time to put into this manifesto I’d Google around to find you stories about Japanese citizens who ate miso soup every day (for breakfast!) & got radiation sickness when we dropped horrifying bombs on them at much lower rates of other Japanese who had abandoned this traditional practice. So not only does Breakfast Soup make you feel good in the moment, who knows what the future may hold and maybe it will prevent against horrors yet to come as well.
  • Man oh man that got dark. Let’s move on to the recipe and stop thinking about World War Three.

BREAKFAST SOUP RECIPE!

photo 1 copy

There are three components to a great Breakfast Soup:

  1. Broth.
  2. Stuff that goes into the broth.
  3. Things you add in at the end.

Broth.

The broth has to be made from kombu or kelp.

There are very few rules to Breakfast Soup.

There is actually only one rule to Breakfast Soup, and this is it: make a dashi (the Japanese term for a broth made from kombu). Without dashi your soup will be bland.

Let’s talk here for a minute about breakfast flavors.

In my previous life as a savory chef, I prided myself on how much I pushed my flavors. Because people think of vegan cooking as bland, I made sure my dishes were balanced and flavor-forward like crazy. More acid! More umami! More richness! Those three are still my trifecta. Rarely can a dish not be improved by lemon zest, shoyu, and olive oil. Or vinegar, porcini mushrooms, and ground cashews. Or yuzu juice, tomato paste, and coconut milk. Acid/umami/fat—my babies.

But breakfast is different, obviously. My BS is savory, but not bursting with flavor. It still has a breakfast vibe, and it’s important to preserve that. I don’t want something super acidic, or very rich. My BS has almost no fat in it at all, which differentiates it from 99% of the other dishes I make, which are pretty fatty. I feel best when I eat a lot of high-quality fats: olive oil, tons of nuts, lots of avocados. But not at breakfast.

So I hold myself back when making Breakfast Soup, but I also don’t want a plain, flavorless, watery breakfast. There is a fine line between purity and elegance of flavor and blandness. Classical Japanese cuisine, particularly the naturally vegan shojin ryori style I’m obsessed with, walks this line with elegance and style, and I want my Breakfast Soup to do the same.

All this is to impress on you how essential kombu is to the dang dish. Kombu is this huge thick seaweed. You don’t need to eat the kombu, is the thing. If you don’t like sea vegetables, just tell yourself you’ll only use it to make the dashi. Within a few weeks I bet you’ll be doing what I do: using it to make the dashi, then using scissors to cut it into bite-sized pieces you then add back into the soup because actually the taste is pretty lovely.

photo 2

I get my kombu and kelp from Ironbound Island sea vegetables, in Maine. I started buying from them because Sandor Katz recommended them and I love Sandy so much. I kept buying from them because they have the best, and most local, sea vegetables I’ve ever tasted. If I have a headache from eating too much sugar, their dulse brings me right back into balance. I nibble on it plain, it’s briny and amazing and I’m alive again. Then, when some nuclear reactors melted down in Japan and the fallout can still be measured as far away as California, I decided to be more circumspect with the Japanese foodstuffs I buy. So now I use Maine sea vegetables out of love for their flavors and also fear of more far-flung seaweeds.

What a tragic world we live in.

Back to soup!

If you want to make Breakfast Soup but you don’t like seaweed, I suggest two things:

  1. Learn to like seaweed. Or:
  2. Don’t make Breakfast Soup.

Seriously! I promise that if you eat Breakfast Soup for two weeks straight you’ll crave that seaweed, and all its trace minerals, its natural iodine and anti-carcinogenic properties, like crazy. Promise. I’ll give you a caramel if I’m wrong, OK? Call me on it!

So kombu is the thing that saves Breakfast Soup from being bland. You could use some dried mushrooms in addition. Just bring some cold filtered water to a boil, toss in 6″ or 12″ of kombu or so, and simmer it for a while. A half hour, fifteen minutes—whatever. It’s good to do this at night, then let the kombu sit in the broth overnight. There. You’ve made dashi. Take out the kombu and throw it out or chop it up and put it right back in. Broth: done.

But there’s an easier way to make the broth, too. Yep, easier than adding one thing to some water and bringing it to a boil.

Every time you cook something tasty and not in the cabbage family (cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, etc), save the cooking water. Pasta, potatoes, the water under your vegetable steamer, etc. Put that water in the fridge with some kombu in it. No need to heat it, especially if the water is still hot. Instant dashi.

In time, when you get into the flow of Breakfast Soup, you’ll find that while you’re cooking throughout the week you’re sort of unconsciously thinking about ways to steal parts of your dinner you ordinarily would have thrown out for BS. Mushroom stems, onion and carrot and potato peelings, even scraps of lemon rind: put them in the same container with your kombu stick. When you run out of BS and need to make a new batch, you’re mostly done already.

Stuff that goes into the broth.

You really need very very little stuff that goes into the broth.

It depends on how hungry you are and what you like to eat in the morning. Also on what’s in season, and how much money you can spend.

Sometimes I feel really unhungry in the morning. On those days I basically make Breakfast Soup Tea: just broth and miso soup and maybe some spinach leaves. Most mornings I add wakame to the soup (two seaweeds, I know I know what a hippie) and something green. Right now, much to my locavore heart’s horror, that something green is either pre-cut pre-washed baby kale you get in plastic boxes at the health food store, or asparagus, because for some reason my health food store has had a good price on California organic asparagus for two weeks now. New Paltz asparagus won’t be up for like three months, but I am enjoying fragrant asparagus pee now! Decadent. If you’re a better locavore than me, you can use local homegrown greens you’ve frozen or fermented in your soup.

I defrosted this vacuum-sealed milkweed to put in my BS, but then I saw some pasta dough in the freezer too, and instead I mixed it with soft cashew cream cheese and made little raviolis for dinner. Oh wintery freezer! Sometimes you're OK, you know that?

I defrosted this vacuum-sealed milkweed to put in my BS, but then I saw some pasta dough in the freezer too, and instead I mixed it with soft cashew cream cheese and made little raviolis for dinner. Oh wintery freezer! Sometimes you’re OK, you know that?

I put some kimchi in sometimes, if I feel like I’m getting sick. (I always want spicy, fermented foods when I feel like I’m getting sick. I’m probably jinxing myself here, but I haven’t had a full-blown cold or flu in years, and I truly think it’s because of going crazy on spicy foods—and the neti pot—at the first sign of stuffiness.)

I shy away from noodles or root vegetables in my soup, unless, as I said, I’m making it into a rare Lunch Soup. Lightness and freshness is my whole thing, again. Herbs are nice, leafy ones like cilantro and parsley, or chervil and tarragon if you’re getting fancy. The tops of celery, those tender, celadon leaves, are nice. Fennel tops, too. Anything gently green. beet greens wouldn’t be my thing here, nor swiss chard. But baby spinach, sure. You can put in whatever you want. I tend to put greens and herbs and other fresh things into each little morning batch instead of reheating the entire soup every day with them in it, so they are still green and fresh-tasting.

Usually when I’m making soup I want to pump up that savory umami richness so I sauté most everything that goes in it in olive oil for another layer of flavor, but for Breakfast Soup I just drop it in the broth (which you want to strain first if it has things like onion peels and stuff in it, naturally).

I’ve been getting little bags of maitake mushrooms and adding them too, thinly sliced. If I don’t have any sometimes I add some dried porcini mushrooms or thinly sliced cremini or shiitake mushrooms. A friend gave me a Woodland Jewel DIY oyster mushroom kit for Hanukkah and it’s still pumping out little oysters I’ve been adding, too. Basically, add any kind of mushroom you like. Mushrooms are a gentle way to add deep flavor.

At this point I also add either shoyu (good-quality soy sauce) or tamari (for gf buddies). Sometimes if I want the soup to be extra comforting and warming I add either some spicy sesame oil or toasted sesame oil, too.

When/if we ever get out from under four feet of snow, Breakfast Soup will make an ideal use for the little bits of foraged foods that you can easily collect in the springtime. The first dandelion shoots, tender and sweet, field garlic, garlic mustard, wood sorrel, chickweed, wild lettuce, maybe a morel here and there, even—Breakfast Soup can be almost free with a little effort and a little bit of help from a springy earth.

I also finely dice tofu and add it to the soup, or I often add misozuke, which is just tofu fermented in miso. I started making it for the Shanghai dinner we did last year and never stopped. Speaking of miso…

Things you add in at the end.

As you can see, the stuff you put into your broth is absolutely a matter of personal preference, but I have strong ideas about what you should make your broth from. Similarly, I want to really really press for you to add miso to your soup. Otherwise it’ll be bland and sort of not useful, really.

Miso is a very powerful food, and I’m convinced it starts your day with magical powers. You need to treat it with some care however: add a little broth to your bowl, then mix in a spoonful of miso and the rest of the broth. This way you won’t boil the miso and kill all the fermented loveliness of it. You can just get plain old Miso Master miso from the health food store, or any brand from an Asian market (just make sure it’s made from organic soybeans, so you’re not eating a bunch of GMOs for breakfast), but if you want to treat yourself right, make your own miso (Wild Fementation, the Art of Fermentation, and The Book of Miso all have instructions) or buy South River Miso’s luxuriously handcrafted misos. They sometimes release seasonal misos (ramp miso! dandelion miso!) that are worth waiting for.

I ramble on a lot more about miso here. And this is a blog post I wrote about many many other ways you can use miso. I REALLY LIKE MISO, OK?

photo 3

I finish my soup off with two more elements: scallions, if I have them, sliced super thinly, and a lot of shichimi togarashi. When I tell you that shichimi togarashi is a spicy Japanese condiment you’ll immediately think, “cool, I’ll use sriracha,” and you so totally can use sriracha. I love sriracha too! But shichimi togarashi is more than just acidic and spicy, like your roostery BFF: it’s a blend of seven spices and they all add up to the finishing touch for a soup that’s well-rounded and deep without being heavy or unbreakfasty. Yuzu peel, sesame seeds, a lil bit of ginger, chilies, a tiny bit of nori (third seaweed of the day and you’re only at breakfast!!!)—it’s a whole world of a meal in of itself, but it’s never overwhelming (though it does get crazy spicy if you add too much, so go slow).

For a meal which takes 10 minutes to make enough to last a week, I sure managed to ramble a lot. I hope it’s been useful for you.

Go make some soup!! And let me know how it goes.

photo 1

2013 highlights from the LL crew

Our 2012 round-up seems almost laughably quaint compared to the wildness that was 2013. I guess that’s good, right?

IMGP2865

We did a lot of amazing work this year. Here’s my rundown of highlights, and below are even better, more poetic, more personal ones from our crew:

  • Constant technical improvements. in 2013 we really committed ourselves to upping our game, technique-wise. We invested in new equipment and braved the many learning curves associated with it in order to make our products better for everyone. It was tough at times but I’m proud that we did it. Always improving! Or, meliora, as they say in Latin which may or may not have been my college’s motto which may or may not be the only reason I know it.
  • Packaging improvements! In 2013 we got custom thick cushiony pads to protect the chocolates snugly in their boxes, as well as custom shipping boxes. We’re working on transitioning all our packaging to earth-friendly chic kraft boxes, instead of standard white bakery boxes, bleached with dioxin and who knows what else. For a while our friendly local-ish box printing company didn’t offer a kraft box, and we basically pressured them until they did. Now we order thousands of them a year!
  • Selmi and Enrobi: by far the biggest change in our work life came from buying a new tempering machine and an enrober. More about that in February!
  • Those Hazelnut bars. They’ll be back, don’t worry.
  • Donations. I’m so proud that as our business has grown we have been able to support even more amazing groups and causes through chocolate. Here’s a partial list:

IMGP2906

IMG_7531

  • Maresa’s macarons becoming the darling of the vegan food world.
  • When we learned that Lucy is a human thermometer, as described (twice) below.
  • When Brendan wowed us with tales of blown sugar, poured sugar, and sugar work flowers he’d made in pastry school.
  • When Samantha’s friends came in to visit her & she got all nervous (it was cute!).
  • When Marena took over shipping & organized our days so well.
  • When after nine years of helping me with logistics & not touching chocolates except to taste them, Jacob’s love for Selmi (read = reluctance to let anyone else use Selmi) turned him into the best mold-filler this shop has ever seen overnight (Selmi deserves a lot of that credit, though).
  • Kate’s Snack Seminar.
  • When Erin made all those candy cigarettes, which took over her life for a week since she was the only one who could make them so good.
  • And of course, CHOCOLATE CALISTHENICS!

IMGP2922

MARENA

Favorite thing I made: Well, I made a lot of boxes. I really like make boxes. Shipping boxes, caramel assortment boxes, truffle boxes, heathen toffee boxes…oh, the heathen toffee boxes… But there is really something beautiful about packing a Locavore truffle assortment into one of Maresa’s porcelain pints–pint, candy pad, truffles, candy pad, truffles, candy pad, cellophane, label, sticker, bow. What a lovely list of steps.
Favorite thing I ate: Staff salad breaks during the summer were pretty fantastic. And when you use a plant potter as a bowl you can make your staff salad deceivingly large. Lagusta made some yellow dressing, it was amazing. Actually that reminds me of the day she made onion rings. My heart grew three sizes that day.
Favorite moment: There was the time Brendan greeted someone who walked in and his voice cracked like he was 12. Lucy & I were out of sight from customers on the couch. She didn’t even need to hesitate, she immediately covered my mouth with her non-soup-holding hand to hide my hysterics while Brendan could see the whole thing happening. I laughed myself to tears for a good ten minutes. Little moments like that are my favorites. The night Jacob was jonesing for a vegan hot dog after Erin & I got some was pretty funny too.
I also really like whenever we get some new product or item in, or even if someone needs a recipe tasted, and we all get called in a circle to try it. When I first started at the shop I sort of kept quiet because I didn’t know anything, but now I feel confident expressing my ideas.
Favorite customers: There’s this dad that comes in with his young son every now and then. He’s got a Long Island accent and the kid runs around the shop reading all the labels on the products, talking a million miles an hour, and asks his dad if they can get it, and the dad always just screams “NO!”. Not in a mean way, more in a, “Someone please help me” way. It’s always pretty entertaining.
JACOB
- the new benches [made by Jacob!]

- Selmi x 2
- donuts [made by Tara, vegan, delivered to the shop every saturday!]
- creating the smores bar (toasting the marshmallow!)
- coffee trainings
- “the mangler”! [our new caramel cutter!]
IMG_3263

LUCY

My favorite moments at the shop aren’t ones I can pick out or describe well. They aren’t the biggest moments, or even the most inspiring. I have those—being let into the creative crazy world of our monthly dinners and the sleepless exhilarating accomplishment of every course; our staff trip to Bloodroot; the time I smelt the caramel cooking and knew it was the right temperature even though the thermometer was broken. Those moments are special to me, and I have cut them out of my heart to look at when I feel lost. But they aren’t my favorites.

My favorites are a string of background moments, of elbows touching at the sink and quiet tappings of truffle dippers on tempering machines. Conversations held in between putting away turtles and grinding almonds, goofy voices and hands on shoulders. Times when I felt simple and purposeful. The laughing looks that reminded me to be grateful of the women around me, of Jacob’s coffee obsession/concentration and Brendan’s binder of recipes. This was a year of being around people who wanted to create perfect beautiful things, and of realizing that I was truly one of them. I wouldn’t know how to explain the little flashes of joy and satisfaction threaded through every day, or the wonder of being so exhausted, frustrated and hollowed out at the end of the night. Those moments between tempering cycles and caramel batches that found us all sitting together on the couch eating a hodge podge of leftovers, singing along to a certain song, laughing at some silly joke for too long…I hope these are cemented in my brain forever.

I have felt the kind of love that I think you can only feel for the people that work alongside you–the kind of pushing support of knowing you are all committed to something larger than yourself. Those passing winks, gentle teases, Monster Mash dance parties, little victories and group struggles held me strong while I learned who I wanted to become and what I wanted to feel towards the world. So I guess what I really want to say is Thank You. Thank you Lagusta, Jacob, Maresa, Kate, Erin, Marena, Brendan, Jayme, and Dawn for all the little kindnesses you have shown me while doing this work next to me. Thank you for giving me a place to soften into my own skin.

IMGP2914

SAMANTHA, our lovely high-school intern-turned-actual part-timer!

Making drinking chocolates

Making millions of caramel assortment boxes

The satisfaction of making the perfect size candy pad just by eyeballing it
Trying to make Gelt bags as fast as people were ordering them
IMGP2939
KATE
the year was 2013 and the highlights were thick and if I could list absolutely everything on earth, I would. when the caramel thermometer broke and Lucy finished a batch of apple caramels perfectly just through the smell of it, alone. every time Erin managed to back off an impressive number of molds with almost no chocolate left in the tempering machine: complete perfect efficiency. when Maresa sprinted a package to the post office one minute before they closed. I told her “you’re insane” and I meant it & she just smiled, said her trademark “see ya” as she dashed out the door. when maresa and i would have “new wave wednesdays” and she knew what my favorite new order song was and joined in my constant elation. when jacob makes coffee when jacob talks about coffee when we get to drink coffee, side by side, when jacob became a selmi chocolatier, high standards, beautiful molds. when brendan talked about how much he loves tie dye, when brendan is unafraid of the robot coupe blade. when Marena and I got 67 packages shipped out in one day and the post office cried but we felt completely invincible, walking on air. when Lagusta talked about watermelons for an hour straight when Lagusta made any sort of food when Lagusta could not tell the difference between a lion and a tiger, her endless pursuit of not wasting absolutely anything. when lucy and i worked late on halloween, spiderman and a candy cane cupping anatomical heart chocolates, dancing to the monster mash, playing it over and over. when we would go outside to stare at the moon. when we all were so mice to each other. every macaron i ate, every macaron maresa made. every muppet babies parody, the shop iguana [i.e. the sugar work heat lamp]. when everyone indulged my snack seminar. when I started working, I didn’t know anything. i asked those questions that seem so silly now: “how do you know if chocolate is out of temper,” “how do you dip a truffle,” “how do you know if your caramel is exactly ready,” and the answer is usually: you look, you feel, it becomes instinct. I remember the day I just realized I was doing it all and not feeling nervous about it. the pride in the small things. it always feels like sugar magic and I do feel like a sugar wizard sometimes, my wand in my apron pocket, a line of us at the beginning of the day, gathered up, divvying up tasks, casting the spells, making all of the things. if I could list absolutely everything on earth, I would.

the holidays are upon us here is everything you need to know

Here we go!

IMGP2524

Some relevant information as you plan your holiday shopping:

We will be open regular hours* until December 31, PLUS we’ll be open until 9 PM on Thursdays in December, along with many other downtown small businesses (I think there’s no other kind, right? Wow, how nice is that. Well…there’s the Mobil.).

We will be closed for our annual sabbatical January 1-January 21. We’ll have some great specials happening the week of December 25-31 in order to use up all our inventory, so keep an eye peeled for that.

We have plenty of nice treats for the festive season. Our Winter Wonderland Box is specially made for sharing during the holiday season, and our Solid Chocolate Reindeer are hand-painted with eco-friendly white puffy tails and red noses. Peppermint Bark is back for the season, too!

In the shop we have lots of solid chocolate hand-painted fir trees and will have hand-pulled candy canes and other special hard candy treats made with organic ingredients, molten hot sugar, and lots of care and affection. We’ll also have some of these peeps:

IMGP2744

We’re also doing a LOT of events this holiday season. Here’s the rundown:

THIS WEEKEND!!! Is Crafted, which is pretty much the least-gross holiday craft fair in existence (so many are gross, am I wrong?) and we’re so honored to be a part of it again. We won’t be there ourselves (Which stinks, because it truly is a really nice time) but our chocolates will be enjoying the beautiful atmosphere.

Then it’s onward (December 7 & 8 and 14 & 15) to a brand new fair which looks also not-gross (OK I’m going to stop rating events by their non-grossness now): The Hudson River Exchange Market, where we’ll have a full table packed with holiday treats. It’s in beautiful arty Hudson (home to all the midcentury modern furniture I so lustily covet), so if you live across the river from us it’s a good chance to say hello and stock up.

We’ll also have chocolates at a brand new Vegan Pop-Up Shop-Up in San Francisco on December 7th and 8th which looks really lovely. I wish I could go, sigh. Looks like some amazing stuff!

We’ll also have chocolates at the Indie Narrowsburg Holiday Mart December 7 and 8 in Narrowsburg, NY.

And finally, we’ll be at TWO Vegan Shop-Ups in December in good old Brooklyn, on December 14 and 21st.

IMGP2721

If you want to order chocolates over our website to pick up at any of these events, you totally can, and you’ll save yourself the cost of shipping. Except that we ourselves will only be there to bring you your order at the Hudson Market and the Brooklyn Shop-Up. If you want to meet us at either of those, just order on the website, select “shop pickup” and let us know which day and which market to bring your order to in the “special instructions” box.

As always and ever, Facebook remains the best way to keep in touch with all these happenings, as we are chained to that beast like you would not believe. Instagram remains the prettiest way to keep in touch if you don’t mind a lot of photos of my cats and useless ranting thrown in. Twitter is a rather sporadic place for us, but we’ve got one of those, too.

PHEW THAT WAS A LOT OF WORDS.

Back to chocolate!

xoxo

Lagusta

*Closed Mondays (though we might be open for three Mondays in December–we’ll see how we’re holding up & let you know!)

Open 12-7 Tuesday-Friday

Open 10-7 Saturday-Sunday

October is the coolest month

Hello chocolatey pals!

IMGP4553

Just a quick note to say that we’re doing something really neat in October: I have 31 days of specials all planned out, one for every beautiful fall day to come, all to thank the bestest customers ever (that’s you!) for your wonderful patronage all year.

Some will be announced on our Facebook page, some on Twitter (@lagustabonbon), some on Instagram (Lagusta‘s my name, don’t wear it out), and some will be only for mailing list subscribers (which you can get on by entering your email address at the bottom of this page).

Let the fun begin!

anti juice-ifesto

Update! I posted this yesterday, and today the NYT totally backed me up!

I AM FREAKING OVER JUICE.

photo 1

Truthfully, I’ve been over juice for a long time. It’s just that right now seems like the right time to publicly declare my over-juiceness. I will not be silenced on the topic of juice any longer! Ain’t I a woman?

(It’s not that gender politics has anything to do with juice whatsoever—though I’m sure I could work it in, actually: juice diets/juice cleanses/juice enemas—juice is a gendered food!

Mostly though, I just like working Sojourner Truth quotes into my everyday speech whenever possible.)

photo 2

Here is the kind of juice I’m not talking about: citrus juice you have once in a while when you go to a diner late at night. Boxed orange juice you get in airports when you are searching wildly for something even vaguely fresh-tasting. The first apple juice of the season when you live in apple country. Those, to me, are incidental juices. Once-in-a-while juices. Those citrus juices are months- or years-old and made with artificial chemicals—yuck. Those are desperation juices (well, except for the first apple juice of the season. That’s just nice.).

The kind of juice I’m talking about is Fancy Juice. Cold-pressed juice you watch being made in front of you from organic ingredients from a wicker basket on the corner. $9 a glass juice. That kind of juice. Kale-cucumber-ginger-apple juice.

First of all: if you like juice, please keep drinking juice. Go forth with your juice! I like eating caramels, so I will continue eating caramels.

But let us not pretend that juice is the path of health, OK? Because that is just patently crap.

Now, I like me a good carrot juice now and then, make no mistake. Sweet and invigorating. Karma Road, the lovely vegan café in my town, makes wonderful juices, and I love them. But I try not to lie to myself about how healthy my occasional juices are.

photo 2 copy

First let’s get into the science. Not to get all paleo on you, but there is absolutely no reason that drinking juice is better for you than just eating the foods juice is made from, and there are reasons it is worse.

Juice is not a whole food, unless you have a Breville juicer or some super fancy machine like that, whereupon you can cold-juice the whole thing. Otherwise, with a centrifugal machine you’re throwing away (or, horror of horrors, making into god-awful muffins and things that everyone in your life pretends are tasty) the pulp, which is where mostly all the nutrients in fruits are.

So what you’re left with is sugar water. Concentrated, vegetal, kaley sugar water. Because it lacks fiber, which makes you feel full, you can drink tons of juice without your body sending you signals to stop—thus filling up on sugar water.

photo 1 copy

There is nothing wrong with drinking sugar water, except that it’s terrible for you. I wouldn’t own a chocolate shop if I didn’t believe in eating things that are terrible for you at least once a day, but I don’t get why people waste their terrible-for-you food allowance on juice when they could be wasting it on, say, almond toffee. Yes, almond toffee is worse for you than juice. But how much worse? I wonder, because our almond toffee pieces come in 14 gram pieces and I see people drinking these insane 20-ounce (600 grams or so) juices all the time.

photo 3 copy

Yes, your sugar water is made from fruits and vegetables, which makes it seem healthier, I get that. It is not though. Seriously. I guess if you never eat fruits and vegetables, a glass of cold-pressed juice will help your diet. If you’ve just left a steakhouse and need to round out your meal, sure, have a juice as dessert. But if you’re a sane eater and don’t usually leave steakhouses, if you’re someone with tries to live healthily, why get into juice? Or, more precisely, why treat juice like a meal, when it’s a treat? If you make juice yourself, it takes so much time and effort and cleanup. Why? Just eat food! Snack on some cucumber sticks, instead of downing a giant cup of cucumber juice.

photo 2 copy 2

There’s something else too, something more personal.

Fruit juice.

I’ve tried, with the juiceheads, I really have.

But it seems to me that those who love juice usually don’t love food. This is fine, I guess, or whatever, but it sure bums me the hell out. To each their own and whatnot. But juice offends me. Juice is sort of—and I fully recognize that this sounds idiotic—an affront to fruit. And an affront to fruit is an affront to my soul.

photo 3 copy 2

I’ve spoken before in this space about my fruit fetishism. For someone who lives for fruit—for the totality of fruit, the soul of fruit, the fruit-ness of fruit—there is something straight-up sad about juice.

Fruit is a sensual experience, and for the aesthete, all the specialness of fruit is missing when it’s mashed up into a thick, warm cup of juice. The pop of a cherry skin, the onrushing heat of a mango eaten over the sink, homegrown watermelon with sweet flaky salt sprinkled on top. These experiences do not translate to juice.

photo 5

Every Sunday when I make a special trip to the Rhinebeck Farmer’s Market for Aba’s Falafel, I wash it down with freshly picked and pressed black currant juice. Am I a hypocrite? Maybe. But black currants are not a fruit I desire to eat alone, and the juice is highly sweetened, which makes it a treat. Sunday mornings are my treat-time. And I fully, wholeheartedly, absolutely believe in treats. (Bet you couldn’t have guessed that.)

Juice is fine, but let’s not kid ourselves: it’ll never be more than that. Fruit, on the other hand, is life itself.

photo 3

IMG_9960

A word about donations, on the occasion of our two-year shop anniversary

946205_10151659890929235_1135980940_n

Sometimes my Facebook feed is full of amazing events put on by nonprofits I love, and the sweets and other treats donated for those events by other companies. We get a ton of requests for donations—of chocolates, gift certificates, and money. The only thing that seriously bums me out (our second shop anniversary today has me thinking closely about this little business I’ve devoted my life to) is how little of these we’re able to contribute to.

There are two reasons for this:
1) I started this business 10 years ago with no capital, and that made me tough. I’m still in a little debt from renovating the building and opening the shop, and there are more fix-ups the 100+ year-old building needs, and we always need better equipment and printing projects, blah blah. In order to have a *sustainable* business, one that can keep growing and employing people in our community and can (eventually) give back (more) to our community and world, I need to keep a watchful eye on costs. We never waste—anything. Everyone at the shop makes fun of me because I’m meticulous about saving and reusing the pasta water from the lunches I cook. This is partially about being thrifty and partially it’s about…

2) We’re *sustainable* in another way too: our ingredients are all top of the line, without exception. When you use really expensive raw materials, and when you have environmentalist core beliefs, you can’t afford to waste anything because 1) you love the earth, who brought forth the raw materials, too much, and 2) your ingredients are so insanely pricey. With the possible exception of a goldsmith, I can’t imagine an artisan who works with more expensive ingredients than us.

So when I see these photos of dozens and dozens of beautiful desserts I know are made with insanely cheap and harmful ingredients at fundraisers, I think about how other businesses have chosen other paths, and how, on balance, I can’t say if their path is better or worse. We routinely get requests to donate hundreds of truffles to large-scale events—these events would bring us good publicity and warm our hearts. But hundreds of truffles made from fair-trade organic chocolate and almost nothing else, each one rolled and dipped and cupped and packaged by hand, would throw our entire week off.

It’s a tightrope. As time goes on, we’ll be able to walk it better. For now, we choose our donations carefully, and are so proud of each one.

August 2013 Savory Dinner: Mad Men Summer

Updated versions of kitschy ’50s and ’60s dishes? Made with local farm-fresh veggies and lots and lots of delicious sweets? HAPPY SUMMER!

IMG_9718

Tickets are available here. 

August 2013: Mad Men Summer

  • Peach punch with thyme
  • Barbecue potato chips with caramelized onion and shallot dip
  • Heirloom iceberg lettuce salad with cashew blue cheese dressing
  • Cream of tomato soup with fried curly parsley
  • Macaroni and cheese casserole with croissant crumbs and potato cracklings
  • Gin and Tonic gelee shots
  • Deep dish peach pie
  • Chocolate-covered neapolitan ice cream bombe
  • Mignardise: Chocolate caramel nougat bars with chocolate Bavarian cream

IMG_9758

Couple things:

  • Dinners are $70 per person, plus tax and gratuity.
  • Reservations can also be purchased in person at the shop.
  • Reservations are non-refundable, however if we can find someone to replace your reservation we will fully refund your purchase. We often have a waiting list for dinners so please let us know if you can’t make it!
  • Dinners begin sharply at 7:30pm and will last approximately 2 hours. Doors to the dining room open at 7:20pm.
  • Dinners are BYOB.
  • Dinners contain all kinds of things like nuts, wheat, gluten, soy, & sugar—but never any dead animals or animal products. ‘Course not!
  • Unfortunately we can’t accommodate substitutions for the menu, although if there is a complimentary alcohol beverage we can make you a virgin one—just tell us when you place your reservation.
  • If you have a birthday in your party, let us know when you place your reservation.
  • There is limited free parking available onsite in the front and rear of the building. First come first serve parking after 7:00pm please.

Please click here for more information and photos and menus of previous dinners.

“Vegan” is Not a Theme: Thoughts on Next Restaurant’s Vegan Menu

I flew to Chicago last week to eat Next Restaurant’s vegan menu.

IMG_9358

It was the most expensive meal of my life, which is saying a lot, because in the past decade or so pretty much all of my disposable income has been devoted to furthering my culinary education by eating vegan tasting menus in high-end restaurants. Alinea, Per Se, Charlie Trotter’s, Brushstroke, Craft, dozens and dozens of long meals at Kajitsu—my only hobby is eating fancy food.

The funny thing about being a vegan chef is that even though the food industry at large makes fun of vegans relentlessly, it’s surprisingly easy to go to a high-end restaurant as a vegan.

Just call to make a reservation and ask if they can make you a vegan menu. That’s it. Most times they’ll say yes—the only place I’ve been turned down was Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and they didn’t reject me, actually, I rejected them. I knew that Blue Hill serves only what they grow and kill, and since I live upstate and eat farm-fresh vegetables prepared well (not as well as they are prepared at Blue Hill, surely, but still pretty damn well-prepared) all spring and summer and fall, I wasn’t particularly interested in lightly steamed baby zukes for $100+. I politely emailed them and asked if they grew beans, for tempeh or tofu, or wheat to make seitan, or nuts—or if I got a vegan tasting menu if it would indeed be 100% vegetables. I received a polite response that that would be exactly the case, so I declined to go.

But otherwise I’ve been surprised, and no more so than at Alinea. I’ve been pretty obsessed with Grant Achatz for years, and went to the special vegan tasting menu we’d booked at Alinea a few years ago with butterflies in my stomach, wanting most of all for it to live up to the hype and my ardent ardor. It did, completely. Most of all, it was fun. Serious but playful, gorgeous but not overly prettied up, weird and bizarre and flavorful. We left the restaurant after four or so hours, gasping with pleasure at what we’d just eaten.

Since then I’ve learned more about the techniques used at Alinea, and though I’m no molecular chef I’ve found it’s fun to wow people with anise-scented smoke pouring out of a soup bowl, and that even easy(ish) avant-garde techniques like the now-ubiquituous spheres and caviar are deeply thrilling to the diners (and me!) at the modest little savory dinner series we do once a month in the back room at the shop. Wandering through the Alinea cookbook always gets my gastric and creative juices running.

IMG_9346

When Next, Grant & co’s new restaurant in Chicago which presents themed menus for four months at a time, announced a vegan menu, my tiny little circle of vegan foodies went insane. We prepared ourselves to scramble for the reservation tickets which are released online in bundles, like coveted concert tickets for the most hyped band of the year. We made our airline reservations before the tickets were available and had to just hope we could get tickets on one of the days we were in town.

We signed up for Twitter alerts whenever Next tweeted, and one day—when I’d just come from the woods where I had been mushrooming for two hours and only had two sad morels to show for it—we got the alert that the tickets were on sale. Jacob was traveling and couldn’t get to a computer. I feverishly got online and navigated the reservations system, wishing that, like Jacob, I’d tooled around the site previously in order to practice for this rushed moment. I finally got my party of six people tickets at 9:30 PM (the last seating on sale) on June 13, at the chef’s table in the kitchen. Amazing luck. I didn’t want to spring for the alcohol pairing, $100+ per person with a mandate that everyone at the table get the pairing, but I opted for the juice pairing, at a more modest $60 per person.

And so we assembled. My mom, Jacob, our family friend Harriet and I got to the restaurant half an hour early because my mom and Harriet, native Chicagoans, weren’t sure they’d know how to get to the restaurant, way off on the in the meatpacking district (ha). I was wearing a hot pink suit. (My brother, pictured, didn’t go because he lives off hot dogs and would have hated every second of it. Please note also that my brother is a human giant who must be about 6’5″, something I appear to have just noticed although he has been this height for a decade. This is unrelated.)

IMG_9335

Our friends Ruby and Alex pulled up on their bikes perfectly on time. We were led to the chef’s table, which was both in and not in the kitchen—it had a glass wall through which you could see the goings-on, but it was shielded by the noise of the restaurant and kitchen by walls on three sides.

IMG_9342

The juices began.

The juices were all delicious. But I’m not sure a juice can be exactly earth-shattering. And here I made a fatal mistake: I assumed that once I had drunk the juice, that particular juice would be over. But, without me quite noticing it, the juice was replenished. Over and over. Until the new juice came, and the cycle repeated. And so I filled up on juices. This generosity of juiciness certainly wasn’t a fault, but my overindulgence on juice did contribute to an increasing unpleasant fullness as the meal went on.

IMG_9400

I’m used to these kind of long tasting menus, but in my everyday life I’m a nibbler. I eat tiny meals all day long, but I rarely sit down and eat a large amount of food at a time. I knew I’d be full by the end of the meal, but I was so incredibly unpleasantly full that by the last three courses I was taking tiny bites in order not to throw up. Again, the extravagant profusion of deliciousness cannot exactly be a flaw of the dinner, and as stomachs go mine is a rather small one, but the last quarter of the dinner was pretty much a wash for me because of the extreme fullness.

Let’s move on to the menu itself.

OK, first of all, here is what I think the menu gets wrong: “vegan” is not a culinary category.

Veganism is an ethical system, not a way of eating. People who eat the Adkins diet, or that weird stupid paleo diet, or eat a strict locavore diet, tend to have some commonalities in their eating patterns. Vegans often do not. There are junk food vegans, locavore vegans (me!), low-fat vegans, high-fat vegans (me!), fruititarian vegans, raw vegans—hell, there are even paleo vegans. Vegans are defined, for better or worse, by what we don’t eat.

And thus the problem.

One cannot plan a menu around an absence.

Tasting menus at fine restaurants are about lavishness, deliciousness, beauty, creativity—and a personal vision. They need an anchor. Next’s other menus—”Paris 1906,” “The Hunt,” “Childhood,” “Kyoto,” “El Bulli,” “Thailand”—provided them with the guidelines and restrictions that are necessary for creativity to truly flourish. “Vegan” really doesn’t. I can see how stripping away animal products could seem, to a mainstream chef, to be enough austerity to get the creativity flowing, but the truth is, as any vegan with a sharp knife knows, there’s an entire world of deliciousness to be cooked out there with nary a dead or tortured animal in sight.

The types of vegan restaurants in New York City alone attest to this: Thai (Pukk), Korean (Hangawi), Japanese (Kajitsu), Chinese (Veggie Dim Sum House, etc.), Hippie (Caravan of Dreams, etc.), high-end (Candle 79, etc.), avant garde (Dirt Candy, etc.), sushi (Beyond Sushi), Indian (dozens), bakeries, donut shops, ice cream parlors, diners—OK, so maybe NYC is an exceptional vegan paradise, but you see my point, right?

Without a doubt, no vegan restaurant in the world (with the exception of Kajitsu, my heart-restaurant) has the amount of money, toys, high-quality ingredients, and sheer cheffy talent that bounces off the walls of Next. My experience there was exciting and pleasant and gave me inspiration and ideas to play with for months to come. But it also left me oddly depressed.

One factor was the attitude of the wait staff. Supremely polite, interested, interesting, and knowledgeable, they nonetheless exuded a pride in the vegan menu that sometimes veered into egotistical arrogance. The servers constantly praised the menu, telling us before we could taste the dishes how much we were going to love them, how much effort went into them, how unique and special they were (my editor mom’s one complaint about the menu, apart from her own painful fullness, was the server who referred to a dish as “super unique.”). “We really outdid ourselves,” “We’re going to have a lot of fun tonight.” “You wouldn’t even believe it’s vegan,” “We actually made it all in-house.” Lots of superlatives, lots of excitement. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. It’s just not exactly my style, or what I expected from the House of Grant, who (in my limited experience consisting of eating once at Alinea and obsessively rereading his autobiography and cookbook) always shows, never tells.*

At one point a server mentioned that a battered swiss chard leaf actually included “beer in the batter, instead of the sparkling water we’d usually use, because we like to drink beer.” I’m not sure if he’d ever eaten at one of the thousands of bars, pubs, fast-casual restaurants and high-end establishments in the country that tout their beer-battered this or that, but a visit to one such tavern might be useful in order to understand why maybe bragging that you sprung for the beer batter instead of the water batter in my $300 dinner might not be all that thrilling. Was the beer vegan? Was it made in-house? Now there’s information I’d have liked to have.

The impression one was left with was that the staff was so incredibly proud of the menu being vegan that the actual cohesiveness of the meal was somewhat secondary. It was as if by daring to cook a vegan meal they’d already scored so many points in the food world for cutting edge transgressiveness** that the hard work was done the day they decided to go temporarily vegan.

A signature Alinea move (one I’ve copied more than once, one I love) is the centerpiece that becomes part of the meal, and it was repeated at Next: a large heavy square glass dish filled seemingly with a random assortment of rocks, pond water, and aquatic greens was dramatically spooned onto plates with the explanation that the water was actually a light vinaigrette and the greens were salad greens.

IMG_9339

“No frogs in here though…” said one waiter. “I guess that wouldn’t be vegan!” said another. “No wait, I guess frogs would be OK…as long as they weren’t being eaten.” said the first waiter. Their tone implied…something. Something having to do with the hilariously weird rules—rules like, “Hey, let’s maybe not kill so much!”—vegans bizarrely follow. We played along, good-naturedly. But it put something weird into the air.

IMG_9408

Also, what as up with the tablecloth change? I just honestly do not get what that was about. At Alinea the white tablecloth is often (always?) removed near the end of the meal and a neoprene one unrolled so that the chefs (swoony Grant Achatz, crush o’ my heart) can dramatically go all Pollock on the table itself, painting it with swirls and dots of sauces and nibbles, liberally dropping liquid nitrogen frozen things that explode and shatter with infinite beauty. If Sylvia Plath had eaten at Alinea, she would have written “what I love is / the piston in motion— / my soul dies before it” about their dessert course. How she wrote it without eating dessert at Alinea, I have no idea.

At Next the first few courses were served on rocks, tree stumps, and in tree branches on a beautiful bare wood table. As the menu progressed we saw more china plates, more silverware, and finally the table was cleared to make way for a heavy white tablecloth. To what avail aside from making some sort of point about a progression of dishes from elemental to avant-garde…I can’t quite figure out. It was just a weird break in the flow of the dinner, really.

OK, let’s get to the food already.

IMG_9351

“Starter and burnt avocado” —served on a rock, with a “kale bouquet” (hilariously immediately fulfilling Jacob’s and my joke earlier in the day that the dinner would be just kale, to mess with vegans who are so obsessed with kale), this dish was unctuous and luscious and salty. Real salty. I love salty, so I didn’t mind. But as dish after dish came out with the salt level turned up to the max, I started not to love salty so so much. And started to drink more juices. And we’ve already talked about that.

This dish celebrated umami flavors, and I, for sure, certainly appreciated this. I was thankful it wasn’t a “light” meal, the spalike steamed vegetables like most people think vegans eat. My culinary philosophy is to prove to the world that vegans can create rich, deep flavors as well as flesh-eaters, and this feeling clearly steered this menu as well. Which was gratifying, even when it went too far into shoyu/sea salt/miso land.

IMG_9353

Here’s my one catty I’m-more-vegan-than-you point about the dinner: the next dish had house-made “sprouted tempeh,” and the kidney bean/chickpea tempeh we make at the shop is just plainly better. The tempeh didn’t have much of a mycelium, which is my real sticking point with tempeh. It was a bit of a mush. But maybe they wanted it that way, and maybe we just have different tempeh tastes. That’s fine. I know I should be giving them kudos for making their own tempeh in the first place.

IMG_9354

The “frozen baked potato,” a crispy sweet potato shell filled with sweet potato sorbet, possibly likely made with their fancy-pants anti-griddle (a device, if memory serves, that Grant invented), was one of those dishes that makes you realize that you just mess around in the kitchen for kicks and sometimes people trade you money for what you make, while these guys are COOKING. Cooking dishes you’ll remember the rest of your life, like sweet potato sorbet in a frozen sweet potato crispy shell. Like that.

IMG_9362

No one else seemed to adore the “nori dumpling” as much as I did. My friend Adrienne, who ate at Next a few days before we did, called the dish “fishy,” but I didn’t get such a fishy flavor…I just loved the fresh green color, the nice clean nori flavor, and the springy texture. I loved that goddamn nori dumpling.

IMG_9363

“Leek and banana” How is it possible that I have no memories of this dish, apart from an appealing crispiness and bite-sized nature?

“Earl grey rambutan.” OK so I have to confess that I just have a Thing with Fruit. Like: I fucking adore fruit. And as a chocolatier, I make a lot with fruit, but truthfully I think fruit is so goddamn good that it’s just a little bit of a sacrilege to make fruit into anything, when really what you should be doing in order to bring about total human liberation and possibly even the coveted Revolution Grrrl Style now is just eating fruit. That’s it. Done. Eating fruit is pretty much the closest I get to a religion, and adding fruits to my Fruit Life List is my only other serious passion other than eating in fancy restos. So when I eat dishes made with fruit, I’m kinda touchy. And this earl grey rambutan thingie—well, have you had rambutan? We eat a lot of rambutan in Hawaii that we buy from dudes in pickup trucks on the side of the road. Eating a rambutan is like having an orgasm while eating an ice cream cone on top of a ferris wheel. I’m not being flowery here, that’s pretty much the dictionary definition of what rambutan tastes like. And “earl grey rambutan” was kind of weird and hard to eat because it didn’t slide into your mouth, like actual rambutan does, and you couldn’t really get at it with any utensil, so you sort of had to pick at it with your finger, which I certainly didn’t mind and which explained the nearby moist towel, but the earth didn’t move or anything when you finally got the one-bite morsel into your mouth.

IMG_9364

“Baby artichoke” made me sad.

I once told my BFF Maresa that I had to be alone when eating artichokes because eating artichokes was a deeply personal activity involving about a quart of really fatty vinaigrette and about one thousand napkins, accompanied by curiously and horrifyingly sexual noises. Then once when I found some artichokes on sale and invited her to share with me while we were both working late one night she was awed and honored to be invited into my weird artichoke ritual. But she declined because she knew that I secretly wanted all four artichokes by myself.

IMG_9366

“Baby artichoke” was teenaged artichokes, firstly. Babies can be eaten entirely, but these had to be scraped. Except that they were so charred (“Up the umami! Char ‘em!”) that the scraping didn’t result in much. This was all offset by the luxurious delicious white artichokey sauciness that dwelled within the heart of the artichoke—some sort of mousse whose flavor was so delicious that the fact that you were only given tiny mouthfuls of it and had to suffer through the rest of the charred leaves once you’d wolfishly wolfed down the buttery richness seemed like some sort of grand statement about the vacuity of the universe.

IMG_9370

“Fermented apples and lichen” I loved this one. I was excited to actually eat lichen after reading so many articles about all these Scandinavians lichen-ing it up in their fancy restaurants these days, but the fermented apples seemed to have been fermented about five minutes before and were coated in such a thick layer of saltiness as to make them fairly inedible. New ferments can be like that—in time the lactic acid fermentation eats away at some of that salt, but if you want to dig into your fermented deliciousness before it’s gotten good and rotten you might want to scrape off some of that salty salty salt. This was served with house-made apple cider vinegar, really more of a supercharged apple cider, strained and spooned into sipping cups table side.

IMG_9371

I know I’m coming off like a real shithead here. What do I know about food, me with my vegan chocolate shop in a town of 10,000 people, me about whom no New Yorker articles have been written, who went to a crappy culinary school and who’s been vegan twenty of my thirty-five years and therefore probably has no palate at all? I dunno. I spend every minute of every day reading about food, foraging for food, touching myself inappropriately while thinking about watermelon, and eating and making food. That’s all I’ve got. I’ve just got my own palate, and my own thoughts, and here they are. Take ‘em or leave ‘em.

The next dish was “lily pond,” which I discussed a bit above.

IMG_9412

IMG_9382

“Rice yogurt and white asparagus” was house-made rice yogurt and white asparagus cooked three ways.

Not to get ludicrously vegan on you, but I always feel bad for white asparagus. While its green friends are happily photosynthesizing, gorging themselves on the deliciousness of sunshine, white asparagus lives in little tents, or underground, or somewhere where sun can’t get to it. But who cares, I still love its pale soft flavor. And this dish was one of my favorite of the night. It felt like what you’re supposed to feel when you think of the words “a sophisticated menu.” A white meal on a white plate. White yogurt, white crackery thing, white spargel. Some bits of perfectly brunoised compressed pear mixed in with the asparagus, just to mess with you. Single-tone dishes really impress me, who knows why. Maybe because in culinary school I was always taught to garnish each dish with a damn sprig of something green or a little dice of red pepper or something to “set off” the food on the plate, and flaunting this feels fun. This dish was garnished with some purslane, which fit the flavors, but it did mess with my dream of a 100% monotone plating. Ah well. The sweet smooth flavors of good old “rice yogurt and white asparagus” knocked me out. Excellent.

IMG_9384

“Salsifies with oyster and dandelion.” We were given a heavily italicized speech about how this dish would blow our minds because salsify tastes like oysters and one preparation of it was served with oyster lettuce which is lettuce which tastes like oysters, and the other side of the plate showcased the earthy side of salsify by pairing it with dandelion and how we had to eat the oystery side of the plate first. Both halves of the plate tasted nice, but I have never eaten an oyster so I guess I can’t comment on this dish much.

IMG_9392

“Swiss chard and douchi.” I discussed the beer-battered swiss chard above. It was delicious. Underneath was a mixture of fermented black beans and black garlic, which was described as “fermented,” and, because I am a huge giant asshole, I had to smilingly interrupt and, with what I hope was the interested mind of the obsessive foodie and not the jerkishness of a jerk, said that I had been emailing with a friend of mine, Sandor Katz (total name drop, which the server totally responded to—I win!), about black garlic because although it seems fermented it’s actually a microbial process or something I couldn’t quite remember that makes it black, and anyway, the dude who invented it in the modern sense holds a patent on it, and isn’t that weird, and on and on until the server politely explained that this actually was fermented, together with the black bean, and there we were. I wonder if he meant that the black beans were fermented, since “douchi” is the name for those delicious Chinese fermented black beans? I wonder if they made their own fermented black beans. Probably. That’s awesome. I’ve only bought them. I wonder where you even get the culture for that? Hmm.

IMG_9397

Moving on! Before I stop writing this report and go spend an hour Googling to find douchi starter.

IMG_9405

“Kombu atoll:” A beautiful plate, a beautiful plating, this dish reminded me so much of beloved Kajitsu that my heart hurt. I once read in New York Magazine how Grant Achatz went to Kajitsu and adored it, and I could see the influence of my beloved Masato Nishihara (who has since moved on to cook at a non-vegan restaurant in London, breaking my heart for good and leaving with boxes of chocolates I showered on him at the last dinner we ate by his gentle quiet hands) in the dish. It was a beautiful broth with a cloak of yuba (homemade? We were not told. Fun fact: my Pig Out Bar research has told me that if it wasn’t homemade or from Hodo Soy Beanery in San Francisco [from which Jacob FedExes me some whenever he travels to SF for work] it was probably made from GMO soy beans.). I’m just being a snot again. I love kombu, I love yuba, I loved this dish.

This one came with a tamarind, aloe, and pea juice that I adored. More pea juice in my life, please.

IMG_9378

“Cherry blossom and almond” was delightful mostly because it included an exceptionally tasty cherry which, fruit fetishist that I am, was the highlight of the latter part of the menu for me.

IMG_9417

I hated “spaghetti squash Bolognese.” Mostly because it was an idea literally out of one of those dreadful 1970s health food cookbooks that veganism is trying to hard to purge from its system these days. Everyone in the world with access to spaghetti squash has taken spaghetti squash and mixed it with a tomato sauce. Everyone. And then everyone has realized that it’s actually better slathered with brown sugar and olive oil and salt and eaten for breakfast on the half shell. “Spaghetti squash Bolognese” came with a jokey speech about how clever it was, and marked the turning point in my stomach capacity from “oh man, I’ve been drinking a lot of juice,” to “I wonder if $300 means we can put this shebang on hold while we all take several rapid turns around the block in order to free up more stomach space,” so maybe I just resented valuable real estate being rented out to such a lousy roommate as those bites of lukewarm spaghetti squash with decent tomato sauce.

IMG_9398

The “mushroom cart” was this thing that was a play on a cheese cart where they wheeled in a cart with a bunch of mushrooms and showed you how pretty they were, then they came back to you a few courses later in the form of a truffled mushroom farotto that was perfectly mushroomy, perfectly tasty, even delicious, but certainly nothing to dream about for the rest of your life, like I’ll be dreaming of the “transparency of raspberry” I ate at one Alinea, one fine day when Next wasn’t even a gleam in its daddy’s eye.

IMG_9424

The juice accompanying this dish was simultaneously my favorite and least favorite of the night, and that these can both exist side-by-side is sort of a metaphor for the whole dinner, is it not? It was huitlacoche, blueberry, and bell pepper. I adore all kinds of weird rotten food, so I love the huitlacoche, the “corn smut” virus that attacks and deliciously digests/ferments corn. I asked if it was homemade and they said they bought it, and now that it think about it—is it even possible to make huitlacoche outside of a lab or spontaneously in a cornfield? I wonder. Hmm. On top of the huitlacoche layer was a vivacious bell pepper foam, which I goddamn straight up loved. I’m sure it was just bell pepper juice run through an iSi whip, but who cares? Truffles are just mushrooms, and no one argues with the fact that they’re the best thing on the planet. Good is good. This juice was good.

IMG_9414

But then Ruby said it reminded her of pizza, and it suddenly reminded everyone at the table so completely and totally of pizza that we knew we couldn’t drink any more. She was perfectly right, and it sort of perfectly ruined the juice. It would have been a great thimbleful of deliciously pizza-y liquid, but it was an entire cupful, and none of us made it even halfway through. (Let it be known that I harbor no ill will against Rubez, and wouldn’t have finished it anyway. Let it also be known that Ruby was wearing the most adorable blue Betty Draper vintage dress of all time and looked, as usual, amazingly dapper.)

IMG_9348

The next dish was randomly and insistently Thai, a sort of larb with a “quinoa wire,”*** in a meal that had heretofore been devoid of many cultural references. It was tasty, as was the juice served with it, “mango, galangal, kaffir lime.”

IMG_9436

Then “curry roasted cauliflower,” which was literally what you make for dinner on Friday night when you get your CSA. Cauliflower. Roasted. With a nice curry sauce. Roasted cauliflower happens to be one of life’s best pleasures, and had I had this dish at a takeout veg place in the East Village I would have gone to bed happy that night. As it was, it made me slightly uneasy, like I was missing something. Or not getting something.

IMG_9440

This dish came with some garnishes, including a sprouted chickpea with lots of greens attached, in a glass cylinder you had to take from its spot in a hollowed out log, à la To Kill a Mockingbird, then poke out onto the plate with the single chopstick provided. This seemed to me gimmicky, and since I am a person who adores culinary gimmicks I’m surprised I was as jaded about it as I was.

IMG_9421

The cauliflower was served with—oh man, I don’t want to say it. Ugh. Naan. Naan which was stale and thick and not tasty. Ugh, it gave me a stomachache to say it. Sorry!

IMG_9442

And onward, to desserts.

IMG_9445

“Olive oil jam and bitter chocolate” with Sichuan buttons. Sichuan buttons (Szechuan buttons? I dunno, it’s 4 am and I have to work tomorrow and I’m not Googling around to check how p.c. my spelling is at this point) are these weirdo rare flowers which make your mouth nicely numb. They were almost invisible on the silver spoon they were sitting on, and we were instructed to eat them first and wait until we felt the buzz to eat the dish, which was 99% Vahlrona and a powder of e.v.o. jam. Half of our table didn’t get buzzed on the buttons, but I did, and was supremely pleased because I sort of think flowers are fruits-to-be and so maybe I could add them to my Fruit Life List. The dessert itself was interesting and deep and roasty and tasty.

IMG_9448

“Hibiscus and pistachio.” And we are back to serving food on tree stumps. Everything on this stump was delicious, except that the “pistachio butter” that enclosed a delicious cube of some sort of pudding wasn’t buttery, it was waxy, probably just pistachio paste mixed with enough cocoa butter to give the treat its square shape, and while it was tasty, it didn’t have the fatty luxuriousness promised by “pistachio butter.” The rest of the dish was a firework of yum.

IMG_9452

Everyone at the table loved the juice that accompanied this dish, “malt, bitter chocolate, black sesame.” It was cold-brewed cocoa powder mixed with malt and black sesame. Maybe something’s wrong with me. I liked it…I don’t know. Maybe at this point in the meal my palate and stomach were just sort of done. It did get me thinking about cold-brewing more than just the coffee we serve as iced coffee in the shop, though. Cold-press extraction. Lots of possibilities there, for sure.

IMG_9450

I loved the last dessert. I’m going to steal it as soon as I can. It was a little round of moss (inedible) topped with a sweet nest of fried sweet potato, topped with the best marshmallow, vegan or otherwise, anyone on this planet has ever eaten. Lightly charred and perfectly marshmallowy. Perfection.

IMG_9455

The mignardies were “steamed crepes” and everyone at our table and everyone I’ve read about online universally emitted a collective “meh” when taking their tiny bites of them. They reminded me a lot of these gross gummy little wheat-free cupcakes I used to have to make when I was a pastry chef at a horrible rat-infested macrobiotic restaurant by NYU, once upon a time in a land far far away.

IMG_9460

And we tumbled out into the night through the almost empty restaurant at 1:45 am, exhausted, fattened up, not quite exhilarated.

IMG_9465

I’m glad I went. I learned lots and I ate some truly astonishingly delicious bites.

But from now on, when I am in Chicago with money to burn and an appetite to be schooled on how to cook a dinner that will change your life, I’ll head to Alinea.

The next night, back in New York, we went to M.O.B. in Brooklyn because we were seeing friends play at the giant arena around the corner before we headed upstate. I was still full from the dinner—seriously. I never really get salads when eating out because I love to make salads, and a badly made salad kills your soul, especially when you pay a 1000% markup for it. But I got a small side salad and a small artichoke mac and cheese, and wanted to weep with the perfection of both. The mac and cheese had a cashew béchamel, with smoked artichokes and…it just all came together so nicely. Simple. Elemental. The salad had just the right amount of dressing, the greens were farmer’s market fresh and juicy, the whole thing was garnished with two perfect rounds of watermelon radish. The service was friendly and nothing more.

It was exactly what I was in the mood for.

IMG_9406

*Fear that this review of Next will kill my life’s goal chances of someday making out with Sir Grant: extremely high.

**And let’s be clear here: with a foodie culture that bows down to bacon like so many culty Asian vegan restaurants worship the Supreme Master Ching Hai and spend countless hours waxing poetic over nose-to-tail this and happy-meat that and making vicious fun of vegans as cheerless ascetics who eat cardboard for dinner and like it—a vegan menu at such a revered restaurant truly is a transgressive act.

***I’d like to throw something out here: no matter what you call it, and no matter what it’s made from, anything cooked in a deep fryer is automatically delicious, and nothing deep-fried is better or worse than anything else deep-fried. Basically, everything you fry in hot oil is as good, and no better than, a McDonalds french fry. This restaurant in my town fries woody herbs alongside their fries: rosemary and sage and everything. It’s delicious, everyone loves it. Salty, and you get the illusion of freshness from the herbs. Sometimes they don’t even strip the herbs from their woody stalks, and you find yourself eating handfuls of sage twigs. Sure, fine. Take quinoa and make it into a batter, fry it up and call it a “quinoa wire,” OK. Shove it in my mouth. It’s all good. Really.

IMG_9462